Lectura Avanzada en Inglés No. 3
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The Berlin Wall
On August 13, 1961 the residents of Berlin, Germany woke up to find that their city had been divided in two. A barrier had been erected overnight by the East German government leaving Berliners in complete shock. The story of the rise and fall of the Berlin wall is both astonishing and fascinating. The fact that it remained standing for 28 years, in spite of it being detested by an overwhelming majority of Berliners, serves as yet another lesson in history of how a small group of people in a position of power, could exert total control over a population by using fear and intimidation. Thousands tried to get over, under, through or around it. More than a thousand died trying. In the end the wall came down almost as suddenly as it went up. It could not contain the will of the German people to be free.
The reason for the wall goes back to the end of the Second World War. At the end of the War in 1945, the city of Berlin lay in ruins. The winners of the war - America, England, France and the Soviet Union - divided Berlin among themselves. West Germany was occupied by the Americans, the British and the French who established a new Democratic Government that stood in direct opposition to Communism. The Soviets took control of East Germany and made it into a brand new Socialist country that would prove to the West that Socialism was the best Political System in the world. The leader of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin, was sure that the new German Democratic Republic (East Germany) would be so superior to West Germany, that the country would eventually be united under communist control. However, dividing up the capital, Berlin, was not so easy. Although the city lay deep within Soviet occupied East Germany, the Americans and the British refused to give it up. After negotiations with the Soviets, an awkward compromise was reached. East Berlin would be under the control of the Soviets and West Berlin would be divided up into American, British and French sectors and be part of capitalist West Germany. This made West Berlin a non-communist island deep within a communist country.
By the 1950s, West Germany began to enter a twenty year period of rapid economic growth. As West Germany’s standard of living improved, East Germans began flooding into West Germany. The simplest way to cross over into West Germany was by crossing the border within the city of Berlin. Between 1945 and 1961 two and a half million East Germans crossed from East Berlin into West Berlin and from West Berlin into West Germany. The majority of the migrants were professionals: engineers, technicians, physicians, teachers, lawyers and skilled workers. The continued loss of its work force threatened East Germany’s economic survival. In 1961, Party Secretary Walter Ulbricht secretly ordered a barrier to be built to stop the hemorrhage of human talent. Over a period of time, barbed wire and concrete were stashed in and around Berlin in preparation. Then on the night of Aug 12, 1961, the border was closed with the help of the police and the East German army, and the barrier of barbed wire and concrete was quickly erected. By 6 o’clock in the morning it was all done. Berliners woke up to find that their city had been cut in two. On the Bernauer Strasse (Bernauer Street) in the north of Berlin, the border closure created an odd situation. The front doors of many apartment houses opened onto West Berlin but the people who lived inside were East Berliners, and now they would no longer be allowed to use their front doors. Many who lived on the lower floors, ran down and out of their front doors across the street into West Berlin before the East German police could catch them. The border guards soon caught on and sealed the front doors of the buildings. Other residents of Bernauer Strasser had a much harder time escaping. It involved jumping from windows of the higher floors. Some lost their lives as they jumped to safety from the windows of the apartments. Within weeks all the windows and doors that opened onto the street were sealed shut with bricks, thus preventing anyone else from escaping that way into West Berlin.
Desperate escape attempts became commonplace and many succeeded. To reduce the number of successful escapes, the East German government began to strengthen the wall until it became a very sophisticated barrier that made it virtually impossible to cross. For an East Berliner trying to cross over into West Berlin, he would first have to get over the inner wall. On the other side of the wall about 90 yards away was the wall that divided East Berlin and West Berlin. Between the two walls were a number of obstacles including automatic search lights, watchtowers with armed guards, a ‘bed of nails’, dogs on long leashes, an electrified barbed wire fence and automatic machine guns connected to tripwires. If an escapee managed to get through all that, they had to get over the concrete barrier that was seen by West Berliners as the Berlin Wall. The wall was 12 feet high in most places and was topped with a cylinder of smooth cement that made it almost impossible to grip. Since getting through this multitude of barriers that made up the Berlin wall was virtually impossible, escapees preferred to fly over, dig tunnels or go around it.
Officially, the East German regime claimed that the border was fortified to keep antisocialist influences out. But most East Germans knew it made their country into a virtual prison. Inside East Germany, the Secret Police, called the ‘Stasi’, enabled the state to exert full control over its citizens. With a web of 90,000 agents and nearly 200,000 informants they used every resource available to them to record the private lives of people, making it difficult for them to express themselves freely even in the privacy of their own homes. In the process, they ruined people’s lives, destroyed families and broke up marriages. By the 1980s the Stasi had collected information on one third of the country’s population. Thousands were arrested and imprisoned. Prisoners were isolated, sleep deprived and interrogated for hours every day to get information about ‘anti-government activities’. These prisoners were led to believe that their families and closest friends had turned against them until they finally gave up any valuable information they had, thus betraying even their close friends and families. By the 1980s, every part of life was controlled by the socialist unity party and its head Erich Honecker. The state claimed that socialist East Germany had a standard of living every bit as high as the West. But the reality was quite different. Everyday items were often in short supply. Most citizens dared not complain for fear of a visit from the Stasi.
In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev, was named General Secretary of the USSR, and things began to change quite rapidly. In 1986 he initiated Perestroika (restructuring), a new policy of political and social reform to revive the Soviet Union’s stagnating economy. In 1988 he introduced Glasnost (Openness) which gave more freedom of speech to the Soviet People. By 1989, growing opposition to the communist party in Poland led to free and fair elections and heralded the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe. The government of Hungary openly defied the Soviet Union by destroying the electrified fence that separated it from Austria to the west. The Soviet Union under Gorbachev did not send in tanks as they had done during previous acts of defiance. Within weeks, thousands of East German vacationers began to take advantage of the open borders in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia to escape to the West. Those who could not get permission to travel simply fled across the border abandoning their property and, sometimes, their families in order to get out of East Germany.
Along with the changes in the Soviet Union, East Germans began to take advantage of new laws allowing more freedom of organized religion. By the summer of 1989 the prayer meetings at the churches turned into rallies demanding reform. In spite of violence and intimidation by the police and the Stasi, the protests grew. Finally, on October 9, 1989, about 70,000 demonstrators marched in the streets of Leipzig, calling for freedom. Erich Honecker, the new head of the East German government, was prepared to use force to break up the protest. Tanks had surrounded the city and armed police waited for the order to charge. Hospitals were ordered to prepare for a large number of casualties. When the time came, Honecker’s aide, Egon Krenz, refused to give the order to crush the demonstrations. Seventy thousand East Germans had been allowed to criticize their government in public with no retaliation from the government. Within a week, Honecker was replaced by Krenz. Faced with new protests he tried to announce new reforms. It was too little, too late.
On the evening of November 9, 1989, during a press conference announcing the easing of travel restrictions, a misunderstanding led the press to believe that the Berlin Wall would be opened immediately, allowing East Germans to cross over into West Berlin. It was a mistake. Within hours, the news had spread throughout Germany. The East German government was caught off guard and didn’t have enough time to rectify the error. Thousands of East Germans gathered at the crossing points at the Berlin Wall. The guards, overwhelmed and confused had no orders. In the chaos they opened the gates and thousands of East Berliners crossed over into West Berlin ending twenty-eight years of imprisonment. A year later on October 3, 1990, Germany was officially reunified.
If you visit Berlin today, you will find that there is not much left of the original Berlin Wall. Lines of cobblestones in some places mark where the wall used to stand. Very little of the original wall is left. It was destroyed in the months after the city was reunified. Although badly damaged by souvenir collectors you can still see what’s left of the wall near the Berlin Ostenbanhof (East railway station). Most guide books will refer to it as the East Side Gallery. There is also a section of the original wall left next to the Topographie des Terrors (Topography of Terror), the site of the former Nazi Gestapo headquarters. The most famous crossing point, Checkpoint Charlie, is now a tourist attraction located next to the Allied Museum in the Dahlem neighborhood of Berlin.
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